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It's an easy enough thing to miss. While all the media outlets trumpet the successes and failures of several big name projects, David Koepp has found himself settled into a strange nitch. Koepp is one of the biggest names in screenwriting, his credits reading like a laundry list of the most hyped properties: JURASSIC PARK, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, SPIDER-MAN and so on. But in between collecting some massive paychecks for the big blockbusters, he has been making small, unassuming psychological horror films that are damn near pitch perfect.
He began in 1996 with THE TRIGGER EFFECT, a horror film more in tone than intent. That one dealt with a passive power outage, where people denied their technological crutches, quickly reverted to primitive survival instincts. His second film was the absolutely brilliant STIR OF ECHOES, really the best adaptation of Richard Matheson's work since the days of Dan Curtis and Rod Serling. TRIGGER EFFECT vanished with nary a whisper. STIR OF ECHOES had awful timing, upstaged by THE SIXTH SENSE, with which it shared one major plot device. Now, sandwiched in between PASSION OF THE CHRIST and DAWN OF THE DEAD, it looks as though people will overlook Koepp's directing talent once again.
His latest film will be gone from theaters in a few weeks. It is called SECRET WINDOW and we began reporting on it last year. In fact, it seems just like yesterday which means it took an unusually speedy turn for Hollywood. It's based upon a novella from Stephen King, "Secret Window, Secret Garden" that was published in his FOUR PAST MIDNIGHT collection. But you won't see any King cameos in this film. You won't hear any 1970s biker rock. You won't even hear any references to Maine landmarks. Like the best King adaptations, this doesn't call attention to itself. It lulls us into a relaxed state so it can hit us over the head at just the right moments.
The prologue tells a familiar tale in an unfamiliar way. Popular author Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp, looking a bit like Fisher Stevens in the SHORT CIRCUIT movies) tracks his wife (Maria Bello - THE COOLER) down to a motel where she is having a tryst with her lover. At once brokenhearted and infuriated, he is taken away by police before he can say or do anything too rash. In most cases, this would be showing the protagonist at his lowest point. But really, it's just the beginning. Six months later, Rainey has allowed himself to become more depressed and miserable than ever. He has moved out of his house and their modest cabin. He sleeps all the time, and every time he wakes up, he looks a bit worse. He still has a huge chip on his shoulder from the looming divorce and his estranged wife that won't stop checking up on him. He is sick and tired of the well-wishers who come by offering Dr. Phil-style advice. To add insult to injury, he has been staring down a writer's worst enemy - the blank page.
All of this is conveyed in split-second timing. The first real conversation we see in the film is when Rainey opens his door to find an intimidating man standing there. "You stole my story," John Shooter (John Turturro) says in a sing-song Mississippi accent. Rainey is flabbergasted. He has no idea what Shooter is talking about. Yet, here is is, accusing Rainey of plagiarism and he doesn't want to go through a sea of lawyers and agents. Thing is, Rainey knows he did not steal Shooter's story, yet they are virtually identical. For some reason, Rainey has a hard time proving this simple fact to Shooter who is growing more agitated with each passing day.
This is just the beginning of the story of course. As Rainey attempts to prove his innocence, we see how strained his relationships with the outside world have become. His wife is still in his life, but is not necessarily welcome. Her lover (Timothy Hutton) is not going away anytime soon. Even his agent did not know the two split up. The only real connection he has is with the psycho that just might kill him.
If none of this sounds particularly thrilling, I'm not surprised. The plots of Koepp's films don't sound that great on paper. But on the screen it's another matter. It isn't because Koepp is a master of the camera. In fact, there is a bare minimum of showiness to his films, as if to counter the hyper-stylish treatment given to his screenwriting gigs. His direction is never boring. He never gets plain lazy. In the days since I saw this film, an incidental shot, of all things, a water glass is what haunts me. But my guess is that you will not often think to yourself, "Hey, look what he did with that shot." At least, not until after the film. Koepp is keeping the tradition alive of pulling just the right strings to let the audience fall under the spell of the story and not the artist.
To be honest with you, I have had one roller coaster of a year - some events tragic, others miraculous. My dog, who I say without apology I loved more than any other living thing in my entire life, passed away. My job is intact but has had the usual shake-ups that keep employee blood pressures on the rise. I am now taking over the bills of an honest to God house for the first time in my life. Around me, people are getting married and having babies while I struggle to deal with just taking care of myself. And all this, dear readers, is just the tip of a jagged and slippery iceberg. It was a sobering yet cathartic experience seeing a film about a real person for a change - someone who struggles with his own personal issues and handles them in ways you would not expect.
Depp turns in, no surprise here, another fine performance. It isn't as show-stopping as his roles in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (to which there is a subtle nod here) or PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, nor is it as understated as DEAD MAN or THE NINTH GATE. Depp has never consciously tried to bring down the house, which is what makes the performances so remarkable. Depp's Mort Rainey is just a man. Worn down by his crumbling marriage and a little ragged around the edges, but a man nonetheless. I could relate more to Mort Rainey than anyone in TAKING LIVES for instance. The character of Mort Rainey is obviously based on Stephen King, just like any writer King has ever spotlighted is based on him. King puts himself in the stories fairly often, almost never in a positive light - THE SHINING, DESPERATION, MISERY and THE DARK HALF just to name a few. But as I alluded to earlier, the film never feels like it is about King. Going one better, despite the protagonist being a writer who is likely richer than most of the people reading this review, the character strikes a chord with just about every frustrated man out there. It just goes to show that fate doesn't care who or what you are when it deals you your hand.
In contrast to Depp, John Turturro manages to avoid a performance that could easily become cliche or parody. John Shooter is a hick to be sure, but he's a neat one, a quiet one and one who believes he has a real beef with the big and famous city writer. You wouldn't expect much out of Maria Bello and Timothy Hutton, not because they aren't great actors, but because the roles seem like they shouldn't amount to much. It is, let's be honest, the role of the wife and the guy she's been screwing. All the same, Koepp's screenplay allows them to have a real stake in the story and thus, they play supporting roles that actually... well, support the story instead of just taking up space like so many nonsensical productions.
At 97 minutes, SECRET WINDOW actually feels a bit short. There are sure signs that the film did not get fleshed out as much as it could have been. Whether this is due to a rush into production or some overly eager mouse clicks on the AVID (Koepp can be ruthless in the editing suite), I really couldn't say. Yet, references to a personal tragedy during Rainey's marriage as well as references to other encounters with fanatics in the past, merely whisper the volumes they could have spoken had they been given room. Instead, the audience will find themselves hearing these events referred to as if it's old news. And to be fair, it is to the people who are trying to forget them. But meanwhile, the viewer is left asking, "Wait, what was that?" Don't hold your breath waiting for answers. One of SECRET WINDOW's strengths is in the questions it asks. One of it's flaws is that it asks a few too many.
How much SECRET WINDOW surprises you will depend on how much horror you watch. After a while, I admit I could see the curveballs John Shooter was throwing at our hero. Still, the way in which these elements are executed has me looking back in awe. Like Koepp's other films, SECRET WINDOW gets better as you reflect upon it. Koepp is becoming such a masterful force in the films he takes on as personal projects, that comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock and Val Lewton are not out of the question. Still, Koepp never feels like you are in the hands of a master. Instead, he fastens you in tight and unassumingly brings you along for the ride.
Once this film hits DVD, I can only hope that it will find the audience it deserves. Somehow, I doubt it. But then, that's what Koepp's track record is for. Personally, I hope Koepp writes a great script for the upcoming WAR OF THE WORLDS, just as I hope he squeezes in another SPIDER-MAN (It would be also be nice if some people would finally appreciate his best superhero film - THE SHADOW.). I also hope he keeps enough creative juice brewing to continue the incredible work he's been doing in the genre. If you are looking for that little film you can tell your friends about, bragging that this is what real suspense is all about, consider this a prime candidate. It's not a classic. But SECRET WINDOW, just like TRIGGER EFFECT and STIR OF ECHOES before it, is worth your horror dollar.